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Waldorf vs Montessori: What's the difference?

You’ve heard me say it before that Waldorf and Montessori are opposing, not complimentary pedagogies. In fact, if you follow Epoch on instagram you know I recently posted a meme I created that said, “There’s no such thing as Waldorf AND Montessori”. In fact when people say, “Oh is it like montessori?”, it kind of triggers me in a way because I remember a professor in grad school telling me it wasn’t possible or wise to be eclectic as a therapist or as an educator. To be eclectic in your approach is to do each method partially. Waldorf stands on its own. There will always be overlaps in theories on child development across theorists, because there are commonalities amongst humans, but the differences between Waldorf and Montessori educational pedagogies are vastly different.

The brass text response to the, “What’s the difference between Waldorf and Montessori?”, question that I hear ten to twenty times a week is: Montessori focuses on educating the mind and developing intelligence and Waldorf educates the head, heart and hands. Each method claims to view the child holistically; however in Montessori the holistic view of the child is that they can have many different strengths, various circles of influence through family make up and lifestyle, and varying personalities. In Waldorf, our holistic view of the child explores the limitless possibilities of the head (the mind, ration, logic, intelligence, brain development, critical thinking, philosophy), the heart (feelings, self regulation, emotions, social connections, spirituality, religion) and the body (visual development, strength, balance, motor skills, coordination, flexibility, handwork, will). In sum, the foundational belief in Montessori is that children are naturally intelligent, but in Waldorf we believe children have multiple intelligences and can acquire new skills regardless of natural ability, they are capable of learning many things.

Another major difference between the two pedagogies is in Montessori the focus is on practical life skills, understanding reality, teaching a method for solving problems and a binary understanding of right and wrong. In Waldorf, we offer opportunities for meaningful work based on the belief that human beings have an innate desire to be purposeful, solve problems, challenge their minds and bodies and we have a desire to give back, innovate, find creative solutions to problems and be resourceful, which is open ended in its design. The children are invited to participate in things that need to be done for the betterment of self, others or the school which in waldorf is a living organism that gives and receives care.

Montessori groups children in three year phases of development whilst Waldorf divides children into seven year epochs of “realms” they’re developing, but also gives meaning to each individual year of age. Instead of kids two to five being similar in stage which they 100% are not…Waldorf says that young children are in the hands realm and must be physically doing things as they become firmly rooted in their earth body, but each year of the child’s life in these early years requires a different understanding and approach. Similarly once they move into the heart realm, they’re desiring much more focus on socialization, feelings and understanding emotions but the 9 year old is understandably approached much differently than the twelve year old.

What’s always bothered me about Montessori is the individuality. It’s almost creepy to walk into a preschool and see a group of children working individually on a task with a right or wrong way, a specific goal in mind for them to learn or accomplish before moving on from the activity and the way each child responds to the same cues. In Waldorf, children work in groups more often than not. We believe humans are pack creatures and need to have a tribe of support in order to thrive. Each misbehavior or discord with a classmate is viewed as a lesson in disguise provided by the universe and in working together we are stronger and more capable. The students are the guide for the teacher as much as the teacher is the guide to the students. Noone works alone unless they want to, conversation is strongly encouraged, and we say verses of reverence and gratitude together which bonds us as a community rather han a cohort of individual beings.

In Waldorf, an active imagination is essential to survival in school, but also in life! We believe children are spiritual beings having a human experience versus Montessori believes we are physical beings with five senses of touch, taste, sight, sound and smell. Us Waldorfy people believe we have at least twelve senses, which include the basic physical senses but also things like intuition, perception, concept, ego and so on. We find it odd that traditional school models focus on readying children for jobs, rather than focus on developing the human and supporting them to follow their path which we believe is predetermined by the universe. In Waldorf, we don’t focus on math and science hoping to turn out a few doctors from our group. We don’t cook because we think a child might become a great chef one day. We offer these skills and lessons to help the child reach their highest potential so that they have what they need to do great things and contribute to the world in meaningful ways. Waldorf students may become doulas, circus performers, tech CEOs, innovators, gardeners, welders, great philosophers or otherwise. What they become is not nearly as important to us as WHO they become. By stretching the imagination we not only speak to the inner workings of the child, but we believe imagination is responsible for innovation.

Contrarily, in a Montessori school, you’d be hard pressed to find a book with talking plants or animals because that’s not realistic. Forget stories with fairies, unicorns, gnomes or folklore of any kind, which are a central focus in a waldorf curriculum all the way up through the grades. We do not suppress a child’s imagination or hurry them through stages by implying they must master a skill in order to move on. In waldorf, we preserve childhood and seek to keep a child in dreamland for as long as possible. We believe an active imagination is essential for a happy life! I’ll quote an old professor of mine by saying, “Play is a child’s natural language and toys are their words. Dr. Landreth taught me this at the University of North Texas and I moved from being a Child Life Specialist to becoming a Play Therapist quickly after learning the value of play is tenfold for a child, but also a family. In Montessori, work is disguised as play. The toys provided may be made from natural materials and appear open ended, but there’s a goal in mind to each activity. There’s a pre-determined purpose; however in Waldorf play is intrinsically motivated. There is no purpose or goal in mind. Play is just that. Play. In the conversations and interactions with peers, learning occurs. The body is developed in climbing a tree or balancing on a wobble board. Knitting strengthens the hands and activates the same part of the brain responsible for language, math and spatial awareness, but the child also develops patience, will, and learns to think backwards, problem solve and experiences the joy of creating and a sense of mastery at the same time.

I found this misinformed quote about Waldorf online. A blogger wrote, “Although a Waldorf curriculum is rich with activities in oral language, music, and constructive and creative play, written language in books and instruction in other academic areas is specifically omitted” and this could not be further from the truth! Sure, in an early childhood program the teacher will not fill the child’s head with data, information, or facts; however, in a grade school program such as Epoch or the other 1200 Waldorf schools worldwide, Waldorf schools are among the elite academically. Waldorf students typically test one to two grades higher than peers the same age and they have a reputation for being over achievers, great communicators and innovators.

Children, and parents, need to activate and engage their imaginations often and feel free to be who they naturally are. Finding meaningful ways to contribute to society as a human being is far more important than finding a job. In my home, Waldorf education is non-negotiable.

Warmly, Chelsea

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